Tag Archives: rabbi

What Should Your Rabbi Talk About?

Tisha B’Av (Aug. 5th), which commemorates the destruction of the Temple also marks the seven week countdown to Rosh Hashanah. Seven weeks. What will the rabbi at the services you attend in seven weeks talk about? Israel? For sure, but what will she say? Immigration? Not so sure about that one—it might depend where you live. Will he suggest that you give yourself the gift of time away from your electronics, from what Joshua Ferris in his latest novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, calls your Me-machine? Your rabbi might say that, so politely nod, ‘cause he’s right.  Yes, you already know it. But then again, most of the great wisdom your rabbi can share is something you already know, but still find it hard to accomplish.

imagesWith seven weeks prior to your rabbi’s high holiday sermon, as rabbi tax-season now starts to ramp up, make him or her a suggested topic list. In fact, narrow it down for your rabbi, he or she might very well thank you. Better still, but certainly annoying (so worth it!!), agree with 10+ fellow congregants about 3 or so topics that you genuinely have questions about and let the rabbi know that y’all have some expectations for real answers to your collective real questions.

“Rabbi, what does Judaism have to say about the existence of my soul?”

“Rabbi, we’re curious about what Judaism has to say about a shift to greater nuclear energy?  Should we fully legalize pot in our state too?”

“Rabbi, what does Judaism say about my gay cousin?”

“Is heaven for real? Are there dogs?”

“Don’t tell me right away, Rabbi, not another ‘on one foot’ answer. Open your books. Ask your colleagues. I want Judaism to guide my life and to answer my questions, so take your time. If you speak to what really concerns me, if you tell me the truth, even a partial-truth as you understand from our vast tradition, it will be worth it! I’ll give you seven weeks.

Here is a topic you might consider suggesting. In this mid-term election year, how about articulating a strong, clear Jewish position on gun control? “Rabbi, should there be a limit on our Second Amendment right?” For most, school hasn’t started yet, so there is no school shootings to speak about. The problem with speaking about gun control after a school shooting is that one can be dismissed as reactionary. A place to start might be from the short piece by my colleague, Menachem Creditor, Peace in Our Cities: Rabbis Against Gun Violence.

There are many great topics, so suggest some to your rabbi—make the High Holiday experience relevant to your real concerns. So why did I suggest gun control? It was on my mind. Yesterday, August 4th, James Brady died. Mr. Brady was Ronald Reagan’s Press Secretary when he was shot during an assassination attempt on the president. After that, Mr. Brady became a tireless spokesman on behalf of curtailing gun sales, and gun violence.

When he was pressing for the Brady bill, Mr. Brady dismissed as “lamebrain nonsense” the National Rifle Association’s contention that a waiting period would inconvenience law-abiding people who had reason to buy a gun. The idea behind the waiting period was to give the seller time to check on whether the prospective purchaser had a criminal record or had lied in supplying information on the required documents.

Mr. Brady said that five business days was not too much to make purchasers wait. Every day, he once testified, “I need help getting out of bed, help taking a shower and help getting dressed, and—damn it—I need help going to the bathroom. I guess I’m paying for their ‘convenience.’ ”  -New York Times (Aug. 4, 2014).

As I imagine it, when James Brady reaches heaven he is no longer in a wheelchair. He is greeted by his late family and friends, even President Reagan, who, thanks to the miracle that is heaven, is no longer limited by the Alzheimer’s he once had. Then, the two of them, guided by the gift of wisdom and eternity, amble over to Charlton Heston, who, while he lived played Moses in the Ten Commandments, and than later in life became the celebrated spokesman for the National Rifle Association. Brady and Reagan, together, pry Heston’s rifle “out of his cold dead hands.”

Posted on August 5, 2014

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Seekers and Unaffiliated: An Opportunity

I recently met a woman who I really liked. We have a lot in common, being  professionally accomplished Jewish women of roughly the same age, with grown kids in their twenties, and an intense interest in progressive politics and making our contributions to repairing the world. She’s raised a Jewish family infused with traditions and conversations about Jewish values. She has a strong Jewish educational background, and speaks Hebrew, as does her husband.

And we are both marginally affiliated Jews. I hold memberships in two communities in Israel; one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv, but not one near my home in New Jersey. She belongs to a Conservative synagogue in her neighborhood that she doesn’t attend, but continues to support out of a sense of history and loyalty. We talked about where we would attend High Holiday services and she said, “anywhere but in the sanctuary of my shul,” (shuttering, as if that would be an ordeal.) I told her that my husband and I would be attending an experimental holiday “prayer event” with “Lab/Shul,” in New York City. We were looking forward to a spiritually rich, musical and interactive experience. She told me about a California rabbi who she finds very inspiring, whose services are live-streamed on the internet. After Rosh Hashanah we shared our thrill for having had wonderful holiday experiences.

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That week I met another very interesting women, also close to my age, professionally accomplished, with young adult kids. She, like me, is studying at a graduate school of Jewish studies, to see where it leads. We talked about our holidays, and she told me that she was still seeking, having left the Reconstructionist synagogue in her New Jersey neighborhood (where she had once been very involved), not because she didn’t like it, but because the expense of dues didn’t make sense to her family after the kids left the nest. Like us, she and her husband planned to spend the holidays in New York City (away from home in New Jersey), to access “hip” alternatives. We talked about where to find the best Israeli food in Manhattan, because she, like me, spends a lot of time visiting Israel.

Then I met another woman in my age cohort at a business meeting in Manhattan, another professionally accomplished woman from the NY Metropolitan area, and her story was much the same. She was anxious to tell me that she had been very involved at her neighborhood synagogue for a long time, serving on the board and actively contributing. But she left there after a political shake up between the board and the clergy, which she found very distasteful. So she and her family found a really “cool” rabbi who was doing High Holiday services in a rented storefront. She talked about how it was informal, engaging, and deeply spiritual. She is also seeking a meaningful Jewish path, feeling alienated from her Reform community, which she feels is too much about politics and not about spirituality. She went on to tell me about the non-profit organization that she and some friends founded in Israel and the amazing work that it is doing.

We are living in challenging times for synagogues in America. Most of my rabbinic colleagues are worried about declining membership, declining volunteer commitment, declining fundraising income. Some worry that the model of the American synagogue, created in the 20th century in a different reality, may be itself endangered. Others complain about losing members to “pop-up” congregations, storefront arrangements for holidays and Shabbat that offer cheap Jewish engagement, or Chabad. Pay as you go, or perhaps no commitment at all, rather than membership dues with a commitment.

I was there until recently too, scrambling to innovate in big and small ways in a small congregation.  Now, from the outside looking in, I am driven to imagine in different ways. Synagogues need to ask challenging questions of themselves, reimagining their strategies for serving a more complex set of needs and demands. People will vote with their feet and their wallets for the kind of Jewish spiritual experiences they want – and are willing to pay for. My commitment for this year is to support and encourage new models, while seeking ways to add my own creative ideas and efforts. Perhaps, rather than fearing this change, we can all embrace the new world of possibilities that come with it.

The three women I profile here are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are noteworthy. A rabbi or a program or a community that can catch their attention and nourish their needs will earn their  support.  It is up to us to seize this time of change to build a better future for the Jewish people.

(Photo from Lab/Shul, Yom Kippur 2013, 5774)

Posted on September 22, 2013

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Am I Still A Rabbi When I Am On Vacation?

Lawrence_Tibbett_cropI am off for several weeks of rest and relaxation. Which brings to mind a puzzling existential question: is a rabbi still a rabbi when on vacation?

On the one hand, becoming a rabbi occurs upon the bestowal of ordination as the culmination of a period of study. This, of course, can lead to a whole host of questions about how rigorous the type of study program ought to be, but for present purposes I want to focus on the meaning of the label “rabbi” in a professional context. The designation “rabbi” is in many ways akin to “doctor”–a job-related title that also connotes societal esteem, trust, and the product of extensive preparatory education. And just as my wife is still a doctor when she is on vacation, so too a rabbi remains a rabbi. While the sunshine (God-willing) may numb the mental capabilities somewhat, I still have the same professional status while on vacation that I had before I left.

On the other hand, being a rabbi is inherently different from being a doctor in one key respect: a rabbi’s work is relational whereas a doctor need not be. Rabbi literally means “teacher”, and a rabbi needs to be in relationship with others no less than a teacher needs students. Whereas a doctor can still practice medicine in an isolated lab, a rabbi cannot be a rabbi in isolation.

But vacation is not isolation (as my children are sure to remind me). When I return to my ancestral homeland of California for vacation, the trickiness of rabbinic identity stems not from an absence of relationships but from the complexity of hanging out from family and friends who see me as Josh, not as Rabbi Ratner.  Even if I try to “act” like a rabbi during a family squabble or answer a friend’s halakhic question, I am not really their rabbi any more than they are my congregants.

One year after my own ordination, I can already feel the power the label “rabbi” conveys.  As we are taught in rabbinical school, rabbis–like all clergy–serve as proxies for God in the eyes of our laity.  Whether we like it or not, we are the symbolic exemplars of all that is religious.  And, like the “God complex” surgeons sometimes take on, the rabbinic affect can subtly, subconsciously start to intrude upon one’s own psyche and sense of self-worth.  I have always disliked the idea of being a religious token or intermediary between others and the Divine, but I am starting to question how much control I have over this pastoral dynamic when serving in my pulpit, no matter how many sermons about spiritual autonomy I give.  So maybe it will be healthy for my sense of humility, during this vacation, to try to focus on reclaiming “Josh” and putting “Rabbi Ratner” on hiatus for a couple weeks.

Posted on July 8, 2013

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Pope versus Pal

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Pope Benedict says that he’ll be stepping down at the end of February. It’s been 600 years since a sitting pontiff has taken such an action, usually you die in service. There were days on the bima, in front of the congregation, when I thought the same might happen to me.  Alas, a story for another day.

I remember when this pope was elected, the plume of smoke that rose from a Vatican chimney signified that the Cardinals had made their secret selection. Such ceremony!

The opportunity to elect a new pope reminds of a recent article written by my dear colleague, Brad Hirschfield, on the ordination this past November of the Coptic Pope, of Egyptian christians, Pope Tawadros II (Washington Post):

APTOPIX_Mideast_Egypt_Pope-0bee8
“The 60-year-old, English-trained pharmacist born as Wagih Sobi Baqi Suleiman, became the head of the Coptic Church when a blindfolded child picked his name out of a bowl…
Following three days of fasting and chanting, a child is selected to reach into the bowl and draw out the name of the person who will serve as the new leader.

We Jews do not have such an elaborate process in choosing our rabbis. Instead, we are taught lessons such as “Make for yourself a rabbi (teacher), and earn for yourself a friend.” (Avot 1:6).

What a crazy teaching? You mean, unlike the Coptic church or the Vatican, the religious leaders we get are not chosen by God, however understood by the Cardinals in the case of the Rome or by the young boy in the case of the Copts? Instead, we choose? We, fallible, imperfects choose our own leaders. So we’ll choose a rabbi who already agrees with us, who won’t push us where we don’t want to be pushed. And this is indeed the case. Where given a choice of synagogues, the number one reason for choosing a synagogue is “like the rabbi.” This is a problem and blessing.

One the one hand, congregants in most synagogues have an unusual power over their religious leader. So how cutting edge can your rabbi be, if the threat of disapproval and the threat of an unrenewed contract looms over his or her head?

On the other hand, there is a lesson here as well. Judaism seems to prize a relationship with a teacher who can also be your friend over one who hold religious, moral, perhaps Godly authority over you. In this complicated relationship, that of rabbi-friend, is a religious secret:

You already know everything you need to know about God and how to be a good and happy person in the world. You don’t need a higher authority to tell you this. What you need is a friend to support you as you take what you know into your heart and out to the world.

Is your rabbi also your friend?  If not why not?  Is it him or her?  Or, is your expectations that keep your rabbi at arms length?

Posted on February 12, 2013

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Taking The Plunge

It was January 2007, almost exactly six years ago. I was sitting in my office, reviewing a dense corporate document retention proposal, when I realized it was time for a career change. I had questioned whether I wanted to remain a lawyer for several years. On the one hand, the law firms where I practiced treated us like indentured servants. We worked extremely long hours, were yelled at, and spent most of our time toiling away at menial tasks like reviewing boxes of emails or proofreading our bosses’ work. On the other hand, the pay was great and the risk was low. All we had to do was sacrifice our time and our pride and we could do quite well. For years, the financial benefits of the job and the uncertainty about what else I might want to do held me in check. But by 2007, the drudgery of the work and the sense of how meaningless it felt became too much for me. I decided that the risk of switching careers—even to something as dramatic as becoming a rabbi—was worth it.

The_Crossing_fo_The_Red_Sea

This dilemma of accepting an unpalatable status quo or taking a risk on an uncertain but potentially transformative new direction is basically what the Israelites confront in Parashat B’shalah. The Israelites have just fled from Egypt and have journeyed as far as the Sea of Reeds when God rouses Pharaoh to chase after them. God is looking for the big finish to the Exodus drama, a climactic battle in which God can once and for all establish supremacy for all to see (Exodus 14:4). The Israelites, however, are not amused. In fact, they are terrified. Whatever faith in God they might have developed from experiencing the ten plagues quickly evaporates in the face of charging chariots and alarming battle cries. They beg Moses to let them return to their former lives of slavery in Egypt. But Moses tells them to have faith, and God, through Moses, parts the waters of the sea so that the Israelites can pass through to the other side. We all know what happens next: the Israelites make it safely across the sea, and once they get to the other side, God causes the waters to crash down upon the Egyptians who are in hot pursuit, drowning them in the sea.

In a fascinating commentary, though, our Sages did not just assume that the Israelites had the courage to march into the parted sea. Even though this event, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, would become a seminal moment in Jewish history which we recount twice a day in our liturgy (in the Mi Chamocha prayer), the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 36b-37a) depicts the Israelites as being hesitant to take the plunge:

Rabbi Yehudah said: When the Israelites stood by the Red Sea, the tribes strove with one another. This tribe said. “I’m not going into the sea first.” And another tribe said, “I’m not going into the sea first.” [Finally,] Nachshon the son of Amminadav jumped and descended into the sea first.

Rabbi Yehuda reflects how we often feel when facing a life-altering challenge. The fear of making change can often be paralyzing. Inertia is a powerful force, as is the psychological comfort of predictability, no matter how unpleasant the predictable may be. We can—and do—come up with a multitude of justifications for staying right where we are. We are conditioned, both culturally and biologically, not to go into the sea first. But Rabbi Yehuda’s account also expresses the truth that it only takes one leap, one chance, one moment of action, and our whole world can change.
We each face these crossroads in life. For some, it might be whether to remain in a relationship that has gone stale or whether to endure the pain and anguish of ending the relationship with the hope of finding a better one. For others, like myself, it might be whether to remain in a job that lacks fulfillment but provides a steady paycheck, or to pursue a dream job that might not work out.

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We even experience this crossroads at national levels. As the Israeli election on January 22 showed, Israel is almost perfectly split between center-left and right-ultra Orthodox parties (each bloc received approximately 60 out of the 120 seats in Israel’s parliament). Israeli leaders, in picking a new government, will have to choose between retaining the status quo coalition of the past few years or forming a new coalition that embraces socioeconomic reform, equal treatment of Haredi and Hiloni Israelis, and an engaged peace process.  Will a Nachshon ben Amminadav emerge to lead Israel into a new, dynamic, and possibly redemptive future, or will Israel’s leadership remain entrenched on the shore, arguing among themselves and unwilling to take the first pivotal step forward?

Change is always hard. We yearn for stability, structure, and continuity in our lives. Yet the wisdom of our tradition is that God will support us if we are willing to take the plunge into uncertainty. The narrative of the Israelites standing at the Sea of Reeds offers us more than just an historical/mythical account of our people’s origins. It empathizes with the difficulties we face, today, between taking risks on an unknown but potentially meaningful future versus remaining mired in an unpleasant, yet known, present. And it offers us hope if we are only bold enough to claim our own redemptive path.

After the Israelites realize their freedom from the Egyptians, they break out into raucous celebration. The people unite in a triumphant and jubilant song, known as Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, which we recount each year during the Torah reading for Parashat Beshallah. May each of us be blessed with the courage to follow our own paths of meaning in life. And may our decisions enable us to sing with joy about the lives we create for ourselves and our people.

Posted on January 27, 2013

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Is Freedom A Jewish Virtue?

Are you on the freedom bandwagon yet? Celebrations of the concept of freedom seem to be permeating the cultural-political zeitgeist these days. Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” which tells the story of President Lincoln’s efforts to pass a Constitutional amendment banning slavery, just received a leading 12 nominations for best picture of the year. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in which we celebrate the birth of the great civil rights hero who helped lead African Americans in their struggle for freedom from racial oppression, is just around the corner (January 21).

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And have you seen the Piers Morgan-Alex Jones interview yet? In a clip that has gone viral, Jones, a radio talk show host and gun enthusiast, launches into a vitriolic tirade about guns, freedom, and potential revolution that makes one wonder how he qualified for a gun permit in the first place.

All of this happens to be coinciding with the time of year in which Jews read the Exodus narrative. At first glance, it appears to be perfect timing. After all, the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery to freedom formed the moral and linguistic basis for Kin’’s civil rights oratory and is inextricably intertwined with Western society’s development of a natural right to liberty (which underlies both the 13th Amendment and gun owner’s claims to liberty from government intrusion into gun ownership). Continue reading

Posted on January 14, 2013

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Are We Living Up To Thanksgiving’s Potential?

So what did you really look forward to last week—Thanksgiving or Black Friday? Gorging on turkey surrounded by all those relatives, or the chance to grab a 50 inch plasma TV for $500 at some big box store? Where were you at 12am on Friday morning (or even 8pm on Thanksgiving at some spots)?

Many social critics bemoan the fact that Black Friday is infringing on the “sanctity” of Thanksgiving. But I think it Black Friday is a good thing. Not because I like shopping, though I confess I enjoy a good bargain like the next person and have had my share of Black Friday experiences in the past. Instead, I think Black Friday is good for America because it forces us to confront, in all its cartoonish outlandishness, what we want to stand for as a people. Thanksgiving ought to be the perfect holiday for Jews. After all, offering thanks to God is one of the primary motifs of Jewish prayer, from the very first prayer we utter each morning (Modeh Ani) to our thrice daily prayer of thanksgiving within the amidah; there was even a thanksgiving (“Todah”) offering in Temple times. Plus, what’s more Jewish than gathering family together around a festive meal?

But take a look at what our contemporary Thanksgiving holiday is like in practice. On Thursday afternoon, we sit down and eat gargantuan portions of food, often accompanied by lounging around watching football. Then there is the manic shopping frenzy of Black Friday, a day created to inaugurate the beginning of the holiday shopping period in which retailers offer large savings to get shoppers in the door. Thanksgiving Thursday and Black Friday, as currently experienced, actually share a unifying theme—gluttonous consumption and overindulgence. In fact, it is not surprising that the two days are quickly becoming one; they are, in a sense, consuming each other! A holiday which began in 1621 as a gathering to celebrate a successful harvest, to appreciate what the Pilgrims and Native Americans had, has morphed into an orgy of excess. Consuming a 25 pound turkey with all the trimmings or buying some electronic gadget you don’t even want (because the object you wanted was sold out and you didn’t want to leave empty-handed) may be proof of material success, but it is not the Jewish way to express gratitude.

Judaism calls on us to engage the world not with greed or lust but with a sense of sova, of enoughness. Through our liturgy and the recitation of brakhot, Judaism demands that we appreciate the blessings we enjoy in this world rather than constantly yearning for more. This is the message that Thanksgiving historically conveyed and continues to have the potential to convey. And this is the message that I hope we, as religious leaders, can begin to propagate. There is nothing wrong with buying things we need, and it can be wonderful to gather together with friends and family for a festive meal. But intention matters. Context matters. To paraphrase the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we pray with our feet, not just with our words. And, in the case of Thanksgiving, we can pray not only through what we stand for but also what we abstain from. So as we enter the fray of the holiday shopping season, let’s try to cultivate an appreciation for what we have rather than becoming fixated on what more we can have. In that way we can pay tribute both to our Jewish heritage and to the message that animated the original Thanksgiving so many years ago.

Posted on November 26, 2012

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A new face of interfaith marriage

In the past couple of weeks I’ve had some very interesting enquiries from couples seeking to be married by a rabbi.  A couple of them are especially interesting because they have two things in common – they found me through a website resource that specializes in reaching out to interfaith couples and families… and in both cases both parties to the marriage were Jewish.  I think its worth sharing and reflecting on these interactions, because they have something to teach us about the changing face of religious engagement, and the landscape that some of us are working in today.

I recently moved to a new congregation in central Massachusetts – Congregation B’nai Shalom – and when I made the move, one of the places where I updated my information was Interfaithfamily.com.  This wonderful site is a depository for hundreds of articles; some written by clergy or for clergy, but the vast majority written by and for people in interfaith families.  They provide introductions to the holidays and Jewish ritual for a non-Jewish family member wanting to understand more.  They provide thought-pieces on the choices people make around raising their children.  They provide a resource for Jewish grandparents figuring out their role in their children’s interfaith family.  And much, much more.  One of the things they also do is provide a referral service to help couples find a rabbi who will say ‘yes’ to the question of officiating at their marriage.  This referral service was designed to bypass the historical experience of many Jews marrying non-Jews who, in the past, would often have to hear many ‘no’ answers before they found a ‘yes’… if they persevered that long.

Now, I know that rabbis officiating at interfaith marriages is a tough topic for many of my colleagues.  And I do respect the path each takes in determining what role they feel they can have, if any.  But today I’m not writing about that choice.  I am a rabbi who says ‘yes’ most of the time.

But I am fascinated by my recent experiences.  One might expect that most of the people who think to use the referral service are Jews marrying a non-Jew.  One probably would less expect to find enquiries coming from two Jews.

In one of my recent exchanges, the bride-to-be was quite clear about how she had taken this route.  She is the child of an interfaith couple.  She was raised Jewish and is fully Jewish according to Jewish law.  But she wanted to find a rabbi to marry her who would have said ‘yes’ to her parents.

In a second instance, an older couple getting married, one for the second time, sought out the website referral service because of a more complex concern involving the first marriage only having been dissolved with a civil divorce and not a ‘get’ – a Jewish divorce.  The details are not important here (although I will say that this was not a case where there was any possibility of children being an issue).  What is interesting is that there was a desire to consecrate a marriage in a traditional, Jewish manner, and a website initially conceived of to primarily serve interfaith families is being seen as a resource for a much wider range of individuals whose particular paths don’t entirely conform with some of the strictures found in some areas of organized Jewish life.  This couple came to interfaithfamily.com because they perceived it to be a place where one could more easily find Rabbis who do Jewish things beyond some of the traditional borders of Jewish life.

In the first instance, we see a case where a young woman practices and identifies with her Jewish heritage.  She chooses to do so, and actively embraces and desires the Jewish religious sanctification of her marriage, even while knowing that there are parts of the Jewish community that would not have warmly welcomed her parents.  The search for a Rabbi who would not only say ‘yes’ to her, but would have said ‘yes’ to her parents is a search for a personal Judaism that offers up the rich wisdom tradition that is ours, with all its beauty, yet also demands a contemporary and inclusive response to the plurality of Jewish identity that exists in America today.

As a rabbi, I’m quite adept at the ‘on on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’ argument.  There is no question that one could put forth an argument regarding the rabbi’s role in preserving traditional communal boundaries and practices.  There are many rabbis who do so passionately.  I certainly do not seek to judge that path.  At the same time, as I observe the pathways that many Jews, like the ones above, are navigating to maintain their ties to our faith and traditions, yet on different terms, I believe that it is important for some of us to be there to meet them when they come knocking.  And I believe, based on what we observe as the changing face of the religious and spiritual landscape in America, that these pathways are likely to become more diverse and multi-faceted with time.

In the meantime, to the couples above, and others, I start by saying ‘Mazel tov!’

Posted on August 8, 2012

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Occupy Wall Street Talmudically Explained

There has been a desire to pin down the central complaint of the 99%, which the Occupy Wall Street organizers purport to represent. So, in preparation for the group’s General Strike on May 1st, International Worker’s Day, the annual commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, I am adding my rabbinic voice to help clarify their message.

The problem begins with the opening lines of the Constitution, a document almost 236 years old – long enough to make its intentions debatable. Making ancient texts intelligible and relevant is the central role of the rabbi, so as as rabbi I feel especially qualified to clear up the issue.

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The American Legal system approaches the Constitution in such a Jewish way, it makes Talmud scholars out of every judge and lawyer. The Talmud, formalized between 500CE and 600CE, atomizes the words of the earlier Mishnah, codified in 200CE. The intervening hundreds of years require of scholars deep exploration to decipher the intent of the of the original words, words which when they were set down were perfectly clear to the rabbis of the older Mishnah. The discrepancy in years between the authorship of the Constitution and the presence have made decoding its intended meaning equally onerous. “Well, what do you mean ‘We the People?”  “What was the intent of ‘general Welfare’?” “What level of disagreement is meant to be rectified by ‘insure domestic tranquility’?”

Apparently one needs to consult a lawyer to definitively know if one had ‘sex’ or not.

I was studying for a rabbinical school Talmud exam when the case of Bush v. Gore was broadcasting on the radio as background noise. I was struck by the similarity of argumentation of the lawyers before the Supreme Court and the sages on the Ancient page in front of me.
My thoughts at the time are still clear to me: 1) Yes, I could have been a lawyer. 2) David Boies and Ted Olson, counsel for Gore and Bush respectively, are hacks. They should try the whole case again in Aramaic!

As a rabbi, trained in the circuitous logic of hyper-analysis of ancient text, I’d like to take a shot at interpreting a specific phrase of the preamble of the Constitution, “secure the Blessings of Liberty.”

“Secure”: A sense of safety, to exist without threat, to person or property.

“Blessing”: Usually translated from Barech (for Hebrew speakers -like Baruch atta Adonai), is a sense of divine oversight. Is the use of the word ‘blessing’ in the constitution a breach of the intent to separate church and state? A fair talmudic question, which deserves a talmud response, no?

For those who have an issue with “In God we trust” on our currency or “one nation, under God” added into the Pledge of Allegiance (when, by whom) – Yes. However, we should rule with the majority, who consider ‘blessings’ to mean expressly the following: ‘with good fortune and ability to effect an outcome that, if we all did agreed about the existence of a divine being, and about the nature of that being, as well as how to worship said deity, we would ascribe the attribute of oversight and agreement to said action. In the case of the Constitution, the good fortune and ability to secure liberty.

But what is ‘liberty’?:  Freedom, yes, but we need to consider the intent of the term in its sitz im leben (academic speak for time and place). So we turn to the inscription on the Liberty Bell, Leviticus 25:10:

And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and you shall return every man unto his possession, and you shall return every man unto his family.

Our best rendering of this clause of the Constitution’s preamble seems to mean that there will be either divine, or empowered human oversight, to ensure that everyone should feel safe and secure, that as far and wide as they may venture out, they can always return home. If we are to also take the idea of the jubilee seriously, the idea of a re-set of property and wealth, every fifty years, than we might extrapolate that every fifty years we ensure that no one, no segment of the American population has sunk to far, and if they have, that they should be restored to possessions and family.

Which brings up yet another issue (for the uninitiated, please appreciate the meandering brilliance of rabbinic logic): In a society that prides itself of upward mobility, does anyone really want to be restored to the way things were? Consider the fantastic 2005 series on Class which apeared in the New York Times (written before the national and world economic bubbles burst):

“A paradox lies at the heart of this new American meritocracy. Merit has replaced the old system of inherited privilege, in which parents to the manner born handed down the manor to their children. But merit, it turns out, is at least partly class-based. Parents with money, education and connections cultivate in their children the habits that the meritocracy rewards. When their children then succeed, their success is seen as earned. The scramble to scoop up a house in the best school district, channel a child into the right preschool program or land the best medical specialist are all part of a quiet contest among social groups that the affluent and educated are winning in a rout.”

In a nutshell, there may be a real cap to what is possible for even a well intentioned American to achieve. On the other side of this equation, there may not be any limit to how far an American can fall – you can loose your home and even the ability to maintain your family.”

Which brings us to the current mood of the country, and what I believe it means to be part of the “99%”: With the exception of the most wealthy, the 1%, the financially most ‘secure’ Americans, there is a sense that our “blessings of liberty” are not secure. There is little confidence that one will not loose all possession and the ability to provide for family. Too many families are one major illness, one more month of unemployment away from loosing everything.

Some have complained that the message of the Occupy Wall Street crowd has been variegated and muddled, but in talmudic and constitutional terms, I believe the message is clear and profound:

We the bottom 99% of the people of the United States, do not believe that we have the ability to secure the blessings of liberty, not for ourselves nor for our posterity.

If the above rendering rings true for you, than you may be a 99%er, and you should seriously consider joining the General Strike on May 1st.

Posted on March 13, 2012

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